At its most basic, Nelson Rodrigues' "The Asphalt Kiss" examines the expression "no good deed goes unpunished." When a bus strikes a pedestrian in a Rio de Janeiro street, a bystander, Arandir, rushes to the aid of the victim, who, approaching death, requests a kiss. Arandir complies, kissing him squarely on the mouth.
As interpreted by an unscrupulous reporter named Amado (Joe Capozzi), however, Arandir's act is fodder for front-page news. He turns the story into something salacious, implicating Arandir's sexuality. With this, the play scathingly comments on the media's abuse of its power. When Arandir's unbearably changeable wife, Selminha (Jessica Kaye), and the police easily accept Amado's imprecations and criminal charges are considered, "Kiss" looks blisteringly at Brazilian society's homophobia 45 years ago.
Rodrigues' storytelling and the dialogue in Alex Ladd's arch translation have a certain Kafkaesque quality to them, as events and assumptions about Arandir's character spiral out of his control. Sarah Cameron Sunde's production (best described as a B-movie on steroids) beautifully enhances the sense of this world's eerie menace (as does Lauren Helpern's set design, with skewed Escher-like platforms, staircases, and walls that are lit with painterly precision by lighting designer Traci Klainer).
Sunde's fine staging and Helpern's handsome environment, however, do not remedy the play's more soap opera-like elements, involving Arandir's strangely bitter father-in-law (played with force by Charles Turner) and his schoolgirlish sister-in-law (played with spirit by Arlene Chico-Lugo). Rodrigues seems to want to make a statement about passion versus kindness, but his point remains murky.
At the center of the playwright's swirling storytelling is James Martinez's charming and bewildered Arandir. We desperately want to see the persecution of this man end (particularly whenever Paul de Sousa's sadistic police detective is on stage) even though it's abundantly clear that Rodrigues' world will not tolerate such compassion.